A Breath of Fresh Air is a beautifully written story that explores the damage the Bhopal gas tragedy in India had on one family, as well as examining how life can turn out differently than planned, particularly for women who are still very much repressed in Indian society.
The story is told in the present by Anjali and her two husbands, Sandeep and Prakash, with flashbacks to their relevant pasts. The multiple viewpoints serve to give us an insight into each character and their agenda, as well as heightening the emotional conflict felt when Prakash comes back into Anjali’s life.
Like most young women, Anjali dreamed of marrying a handsome man and raising a family, so when she meets Prakash, a good-looking young soldier, she is immediately lovestruck and accepts his marriage proposal. However, things aren’t what they seem as Prakash, running from an affair with a married woman, has been ordered to marry to stay in the army and Anjali seems to be the perfect choice. Soon after they marry, Anjali realises that married life isn’t what she expected and nothing she does seems to please her husband who is continuing to have affairs.
After a visit to her parents, Prakash fails to collect Anjali from the station and that is when she is caught up in the Bhopal tragedy. Not only is Anjali physically damaged from the gas, she is also emotionally scarred from witnessing the effects on others but the change Anjali undergoes is deeper as it gives her the courage to divorce her husband for his infidelity. Instead of being supported by her parents, Anjali finds herself alone as it is a woman’s place to obey her husband and her actions have brought disgrace upon them.
Anjali doesn’t bow to their pressure and begins to live her life they way she wants to live it. After a few years, she returns to school and meets Sandeep who becomes her second husband. Anjali loves Sandeep, it may not be the same burning passion she felt for Prakash, however Sandeep is stable and makes her happy. Before long, the horrors of Bhopal resurface when Anjali gives birth to a son and they realise he has a weak heart and lungs, resulting from Anjali’s exposure. Anjali and Sandeep devote themselves to caring for their son, Amar, but it is obvious nothing can be done.
Years later, when Amar is twelve, Anjali meets Prakash at the market and her life is turned upside down once more. Prakash is now married to a beautiful woman and the father of two healthy children, and Anjali is dismayed when she finds herself resenting Prakash’s new wife for having the life she thought she was going to have with Prakash. As much as Anjali protests otherwise, Sandeep knows he is second best and hasn’t been able to give his wife the life she deserves but as emotions rise to the surface, Amar’s health reaches crisis point and it has devastating consequences for them all.
For Prakash, Amar is the living reminder of his failure to collect Anjali that fateful day and his guilt is tearing him apart. It’s not that Prakash is determined to help Amar for Anjali’s sake, or even the sake of the boy, his only interest is in doing all he can to ease his own guilt. Prakash hasn’t changed at all and once Anjali realises she has been pining after an illusion, it makes her even more grateful for her life with Sandeep who is everything Prakash is not. The characters are all wonderfully drawn and the last few scenes Anjali shares with her son are emotionally poignant.
The treatment of women is also wonderfully portrayed, none more so than Anjali’s sister-in-law who as a widowed woman has to rely on the charity of her brother to survive. As a widow, she no longer has any status and it makes her bitter. Widows are often shunned in Indian society as they are seen as a financial burden as well as bad luck. Anjali manages to overcome the shame of divorce to marry again but she needs to keep her former marriage a secret from her friends and work colleagues so they won’t condemn her for it as she is the one who will be blamed even though her husband was unfaithful.